Switzerland and France scrambled military jets on Tuesday to accompany an El Al flight as it passed through their airspace after US authorities received a telephone bomb threat about a possible explosive stashed aboard the plane.
The threat turned out to be a hoax, El Al officials said.
El Al flight LY002, which took off from New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport late Monday local time, landed safely at Ben Gurion Airport Tuesday afternoon.
The passengers were not told of the threat while the plane — a 747 with some 380 on board — was in the air, and only learned of it on landing in Israel. Families were informed of developments as the plane made its way across Europe, and many were on hand at the airport to receive the passengers.
Many were rattled by the news, they told Army Radio. It took hours for authorities to confirm the scare was a hoax, leaving Israeli relatives afraid for the lives of family members. Several family members wept as they embraced the arrivals.
The anonymous call was made to US authorities after the plane was airborne, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. The bomb was said to have been smuggled aboard and hidden in the plane’s kitchen.
American officials informed their Swiss counterparts of the threat as the plane entered Swiss airspace, leading both Switzerland and France to scramble air force jets to accompany the airliner.
But a careful search of the plane concluded that there was no bomb on board, leading authorities to allow the plane to continue on its pre-planned course to Ben Gurion.
“We came out of the plane, there was somebody from the news who asked if we know anything and we said we didn’t feel anything,” said one passenger, Rivi Aharon, on arrival. “He said they thought three was a bomb on the plane so I was very nervous.”
Another passenger, David Machlis, said he too was surprised. “I heard that the plane was accompanied by a fighter plane,” he said. “But I did not see it … Not knowing was the best situation in my opinion.”
The Swiss air force said in a statement that it deployed jets around 8:30 a.m. on a so-called “hot mission,” that accompanied the flight. Vladi Barrosa, a spokesman for the Swiss government-run air navigation service Skyguide, said the plane left Swiss airspace safely into Austrian airspace.
The incident caused concern among locals in German-speaking Switzerland after two sonic booms echoed after two Swiss F/A-18 aircraft were deployed for the escort. Barrosa, working in the Zurich area, said he too heard the blasts: “I thought my windows were about to burst.”
Barrosa said American authorities had alerted their European colleagues that “there might be a bomb in the galley of the airplane.”
He said jets are typically scrambled in these cases to relay the location of the plane and to establish visual contact with the pilots. They are also in place for the worst case scenario in which they would be required to shoot down the plane if it were hijacked and posed an imminent threat to targets on the ground.
The French air force said it also scrambled jets from an air base in Creil north of Paris after receiving a warning from an ally.
A spokeswoman said jets accompanied the El Al flight from the moment it entered French airspace at the Atlantic Coast of Cherbourg until it crossed the Alps into Switzerland. The El Al pilot was in constant contact with the French pilot and with officials monitoring the air space, she said, adding that if it had been a confirmed threat they would have ordered an emergency landing.